Joke Leaves Professor Suspended, Investigated; FIRE Intervenes

By on April 26, 2013

Yesterday, the Orlando Sentinel reported the suspension of University of Central Florida (UCF) Professor Hyung-il Jung on the basis of a supposedly threatening comment made during a class review session. Jung has been barred from campus and from contacting his students and UCF’s police are involved in the investigation into his speech. So the speech in question must have been bad, right? Well, here’s what the Sentinel reports:

[Jung] told the Sentinel that he made a comment toward the end of the review session that was meant as a joke. The material was difficult, and he said he noticed the pained look on students’ faces.

"What I said was: ‘This question is very difficult. It looks like you guys are being slowly suffocated by these questions. Am I on a killing spree or what?’" Jung said.

One student apparently complained to the UCF administration—but as the Sentinel notes, "a group of almost 20 students e-mailed a letter to the University of Central Florida administration on Thursday explaining that they knew the comment that Jung made during a study session was meant as a joke." Those 20 or so students represent about 80% of the total students in attendance. 

Alarmingly, given the nature of Jung’s remarks—which the vast majority of his students clearly understood were intended to be a joke—a spokesperson for UCF called the remarks "completely inappropriate." Even worse, the spokesperson asserted that the reference to a killing spree was "not an acceptable topic to joke about, particularly in light of recent events around the country and on our campus." 

Did the spokesperson just make a veiled allusion to last week’s tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon to justify punishment of a professor for what appears to be protected speech? It would appear that yes, yes he did. (The spokesperson’s other reference was most likely to the suicide of UCF student James Oliver Seevakumaran, whose dorm room was later found to contain firearms, homemade bombs, and 1,000 rounds of ammunition.) 

Citing national tragedies to justify punishing protected expression is a deplorable tactic, and one FIRE has seen deployed often. We said so to UCF President John C. Hitt in a letter sent today, and reminded UCF of its duties to protect the First Amendment as well: 

[T]he Supreme Court has defined "true threats" as "those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals." Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343, 359 (2003) (emphasis added). Jung’s comments fall far short of this threshold, as evidenced by the fact that roughly 20 students at the review session—or roughly 80 percent of the students present—clearly understood the remarks were meant as a joke and posed no threat, and wrote a letter to the university saying so. 

Moreover, treating Jung’s joke as a threat ignores the plain fact that, as reported, the statement itself was not actually a threat. It is phrased in the present tense and is clearly an exaggerated metaphor. Even if it were a literally true statement (it was not; no students were suffocated, nor did Jung go on a "killing spree") it still would not be a threat but rather a description. Legal knowledge is not required to make this determination; a grade-school understanding of grammar would suffice. 

Especially in light of the fact that apparently the vast majority of Jung’s students understood that he was not making a threat, Binette’s statement that "[t]his is not an acceptable topic to joke about, particularly in light of recent events around the country and on our campus," is dangerously irresponsible and profoundly chills student and faculty expression. The idea that certain uncomfortable topics are entirely off-limits to humor is an affront to the First Amendment and a sentiment UCF must publicly and forcefully renounce. 

Of course, UCF has a duty to protect the safety of its students and faculty. That does not, however, give it license to scuttle protected speech simply because it may make some in the community feel uncomfortable. Hopefully this is a message that UCF quickly gets, and hopefully it ceases its investigation of Professor Jung in short order. We will keep Torch readers posted.  

Schools: University of Central Florida